Warm, thoughtful and sexy

With her first album Who is Jill Scott? this young Philadelphian singer has instantly become a major force in the new wave of 'conscious' soul and hip-hop. So who really is Jill Scott?
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The Independent Culture

Weary with jetlag, Jill Scott stretches, yawns and smiles. Exhausted following a full day's promotional duties, she's understandably glad the ordeal is over, and a little demob-happy at the prospect of maybe meeting one-time British soul wunderkind Omar later in the evening. As I get up to leave, I offer her my hand. She brushes it aside and enfolds me in a hug instead, murmuring as we part, "Oh, you smell goood".

Weary with jetlag, Jill Scott stretches, yawns and smiles. Exhausted following a full day's promotional duties, she's understandably glad the ordeal is over, and a little demob-happy at the prospect of maybe meeting one-time British soul wunderkind Omar later in the evening. As I get up to leave, I offer her my hand. She brushes it aside and enfolds me in a hug instead, murmuring as we part, "Oh, you smell goood".

Well, it's nice to know I have something else in common with Michael Jordan - apart from the money, the looks, and the ability to fly, of course. Having finally hung up his Air Jordans', the basketball legend is venturing into other areas now, chief among them being Hidden Beach Recordings, the label he's set up with former Motown jazz chief Steve McKeever. The first release on Hidden Beach is Jill's album Who Is Jill Scott? Words And Sounds Vol. 1, an acclaimed slice of warm, thoughtful, sexy R&B which instantly sets the young Philadelphian alongside the likes of new soul poets Erykah Badu and Dana Bryant, establishing her as a major force in the new wave of "conscious" soul and hip-hop.

It was at the launch party for the album that she first met the "sweet as sugar" Jordan, the recollection of which still gives her goosebumps. "Oh my goodness!" she says, "I just had a chill thinking about him! He's very touchy-feely - you get next to him, he hugs you right up. He rubs your arm, and talks and smells so good...oh my goodness!" Hidden Beach came by Jill through Will Smith's music partner and fellow Philadelphian DJ Jazzy Jeff Townes, for whom she had recorded a handful of demos. At the time, she had been serving an apprenticeship with the local Arden Theatre Company, working twelve hours a day, six days a week, for $150; tough work, but it gave her a grounding in stage sound, lighting, and set-building which led to a theatre fellowship and eventually to a part in the musical Rent, as the "Seasons Of Love" soloist.

"When Rent came to town, all of Philadelphia called me: 'Jill, you have to audition for Rent!'" she chuckles. "Everybody I knew! The phone didn't stop ringing until I went to the audition. And six auditions later, I got it! That was the first big gig I got - a tour, Equity and all that. It was in Vancouver, and after it closed I got called three times to audition for the Broadway show, but I had an album to finish. That's a nice choice to have to make!"

She loved music at an early age. "I don't remember a time when I wasn't singing, from my earliest memories," says Jill. "As soon as I could make a note, I was singing." And her interest in poetry enabled Jill to have something to sing about, an interest engendered by her English teacher Fran Danish, "a great lady" in her estimation.

"In 8th grade, she gave us a list of people to write a report on, and I picked out Nicky Giovanni," recalls Jill. "She's one of the most incredible American poets from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, one of those sisters with natural hair, who decided she was gonna say what she needed to say. I chose her by random, went and got the book, and there was poetry about little black girls! I had never read poetry about little black girls - she was talking about me! I got so excited! I just read it and read it and read it, the whole thing, flipped back, and read it through again - I had these pictures of little brown girls sitting between their grandma's legs, getting their hair done. I do that! I thought it was incredible, these wonderful pieces I could identify with. That was the beginning, that was what started me off."

From there, she became involved with the burgeoning black poetry scene, which in Philadelphia centred around Ursula Rucker and Rich Medina, and involved the likes of hip-hop crew The Roots, whom she would sometimes encounter rapping out on South Street, with double bass and drums. "They just wanted to let folks know what was going on," she recalls. "Then I began to see them at poetry readings, and from there, they called and asked if I wanted to help them write a song. And I did!"

The collaboration proved efficacious for both parties, resulting in the group's hit "You Got Me": Jill's first writing credit, it won a Grammy Award. The tour which followed led to further work with soulman Eric Benet ("When You Think Of Me"), hot new rapper Common ("8 Minutes To Sunrise" and "Funky For You"), and most auspiciously of all, Will Smith, with whom she co-wrote and sang "The Rain", from his huge-selling Willennium album.

"He's so funny," she recalls of the Fresh Prince megastar. "You laugh all day, till you just can't stand it any more. Like, you wanna knock him out because he's So Damn Funny! I said, Please, stop, you're killing me, literally killing me, my stomach's in knots, my hands are sweating, just stop it! He's also a perfectionist: you can't beat him, it doesn't matter what it is, if it's running or whatever. The guys would race down the hallway for fun, and Will would do anything to win. You just don't beat him! Is he ever driven!" When it came to her own album, Jill wanted to blend the beats of hip-hop with the smoother soul sounds of the artists she grew up listening to, the likes of Marvin, Teddy, Aretha, Patti and The Temptations; though she was handicapped by her lack of musical training. "I don't read music, I don't write, I don't play," she admits, "all I can do is tell you how it goes, like 'dum-dum-dum-dumde-dum'.That's as good as it gets! So I found producers who could 'hear' my vision."

With the help of the stable of producers affiliated to Jazzy Jeff's A Touch Of Jazz organisation, she set about realising the sounds in her head. The results share similarities with the retro-nuevo soul sounds of D'Angelo and Maxwell, while the emotional and sexual frankness of her (part-sung, part-spoken) lyrics offers a welcome counter-balance to the tawdry objectification of women one finds in gangsta-rap. "Of course, we have sexual desires as well as men, but I think it's a matter of being lewd, or not," she believes. "It's just a matter of how you say it. Human sexuality is real, it's not going away, but just to be so...common, as my grandma calls it, is really not very attractive."

Jill's attitude regarding sexual discourse is part of a broader stance on social responsibility, that perhaps reflects her upbringing as the daughter of a cop and an acupressure healer. "I believe you definitely have a responsibility in everything you do, whether you're an artist or a doctor or a lawyer," she affirms. "Ultimately, we pay for what we do, and if you think about it that way, there's an obligation to educate and uplift - especially the children, because they absorb so much of what we do: just look at all the young white boys that dress up like young black boys, with the baggy pants and the hats backwards. Will Smith gets a lot of crap - they say he's sold out, popped out - but he doesn't curse, he doesn't say anything that's harmful to children, if anything, he ignites their minds, and I think that's commendable.

"Rappers like Common and Mos Def are focusing on your soul, because ultimately, it's your soul that matters more than anything. You may have a million dollars, but is your heart happy, is your soul intact, is your head together?"

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